Newspaper article News Sentinel

New Orleans Turns the Big 3-0-0

Newspaper article News Sentinel

New Orleans Turns the Big 3-0-0

Article excerpt

NEW ORLEANS - I have an eccentric friend who can be as genteel as a debutante at a garden party or as ribald as a sailor at last call, a contradictory nature I've learned to love. When we're together, I'm putty in her hands, always giving in to her whims.

One day I'm reverently admiring the glowing stained-glass windows of a historical church, and the next, I'm in some crazy-weird bar, laughing so hard I've snorted my fancy cocktail through my nose and am crying black mascara tears.

The old gal is celebrating a milestone birthday this year. She's turning 300. Her name is New Orleans.

In honor of the tricentennial, I strolled through the French Quarter, the oldest section of my beloved port city on the Mississippi River, to reacquaint myself with the venerable landmarks and action-packed hotspots that give the Big Easy that quirky personality that attracts thousands of tourists every year.

The Historic New Orleans Collection

I kicked off my city tour at The Historic New Orleans Collection, a French Quarter museum, to peruse "New Orleans: The Founding Era," an exhibit on view through May 27 to commemorate the tricentennial. It offers insight into what life was like in the city's nascent stage, long before it became famous for Mardi Gras and Sazeracs.

The show examines the complex and conflicted nature of the colony as a diaspora of French, Germans, Canadians, enslaved Africans and others settled the swampy, inhospitable land in the first half of the 18th century, laying the groundwork for what would become one of America's most culturally diverse cities.

Rare artifacts from the museum's collection as well as from institutions in Europe and Canada are featured.

A pair of bear paw moccasins are a reminder that Native Americans inhabited the region long before French explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville founded "La Nouvelle-Orleans" in 1718.

Highlights include original handmade maps that show how New Orleans' footprint evolved over time and a mortar and pestle used by an early hospital.

Jackson Square

Next, I headed to Jackson Square, the very heart of the French Quarter and the city's most recognizable landmark, where I was greeted by Andrew Jackson, the park's namesake. The statue is a tribute to the general and future president of the United States that protected the city against the British in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, the last major battle during the War of 1812.

Artists sat in the spring sunlight painting St. Louis Cathedral, a triple-steepled marvel of French architecture that rises majestically above the square and is the oldest continuously active cathedral in the United States. A 6-foot-tall marble statue of canonized pope St. John Paul II was erected in January to commemorate the city's 300-year-old ties with the Catholic church.

Nearby, a brass band started blasting jazz standards beneath a sign that read, "Church quiet zone," transforming me from reverent to devil-may-care in seconds.

To the left of the cathedral is the Cabildo, an imposing building that was once home to the Spanish colonial government and is now operated by the Louisiana State Museum. The French left an indelible legacy, but Louisiana was under Spanish control from 1763 to 1803.

The museum is temporarily closed while it gears up for a grand-scale exhibit, "Recovered Memories: Spain, New Orleans and the Support for the American Revolution," which runs April 21-July 8.

The show will chronicle Spain's support for the American colonies prior to and during the American Revolution and illuminate influential Spaniards who helped shape the emerging country.

After a morning of indulging my inner history buff, I took the advice of the Lyft driver that picked me up at the airport and just wandered. …

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